How Foam Latex Spawned a Horror Makeup Revolution

By David Konow

By today’s standards, latex may not seem very high tech, but it was a major revelation when makeup masters like John Chambers and Dick Smith worked with it, and it was the tool that helped launch a major revolution in effects, culminating in the golden age of makeup in the eighties.

When Netflix debuted its original horror show Hemlock Grove this year, one of the things that got viewers and critics talking was the gruesome werewolf transformation in the first episode. It was a uniquely designed metamorphosis--and yes, it was gory--but if you ask me, it was held back by the production's reliance on computer generated graphics. The transformation looked too fake, shiny, and even rubbery. Which is ironic because the horror monsters of yesteryear looked better when they were actually made of rubber. Specifically foam latex.

It’s funny to think of something like foam rubber leading a revolution, but that’s exactly what happened in the world of makeup effects. By today’s standards, latex may not seem very high tech, but it was a major revelation when makeup masters like John Chambers and Dick Smith worked with it, and it was the tool that helped launch a major revolution in effects, culminating in the golden age of makeup in the eighties.

Hemlock Grove's computer generated werewolf transformation.

The modern makeup foundation was built at the turn of the century with the original makeup master Lon Chaney, and Jack Pierce, who created the monsters for Universal Studios. Eventually the Universal monsters progressed into the rubber suit variety, and Rick Baker always hailed the Creature From the Black Lagoon as the best of them.

Years later, one of the most important movies that helped launch a generation of makeup men was the original Planet of the Apes. John Chambers (played by John Goodman in Argo) was the pioneer of working in foam latex, he created Spock’s ears for Star Trek, and his makeup designs for Apes were major landmarks. “Planet of the Apes is one of the most important makeup movies ever,” says makeup genius Rick Baker. “That inspired a whole generation of kids to become makeup artists.”

But one sticking point was the masks didn’t flex well when the apes spoke. It was Dick Smith who came up with the innovation of using smaller, reusable pieces of foam latex so that the makeup had more flexibility. The actors could be more expressive with their makeup on, and it would also look more realistic.

“Dick Smith is the greatest living makeup artist on the planet,” says Tom Savini, the wizard of gore who did the makeup FX for the original Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. “He’s invented all the techniques that every makeup artist uses today. They might improve on it, they might make it better, but it all begins with his techniques.”

American Werewolf in London's practical makeup transformation.

Modern makeup artists have had a hard time figuring out how Pierce created the Frankenstein monster and the Wolf-Man because whatever plans or paperwork he may have had weren’t saved for future generations. (How Chaney created his legendary makeups is also a mystery, and have been the subject of speculation and guesswork over the years.)

This would all change with Dick Smith, who generously shared his secrets with anyone who wanted to learn. If you wrote to Smith wanting to learn a certain makeup technique, he would write back with instructions he’d personally typed out for you.

When Savini wrote his own legendary how-to book, Grand Illusions, he included Dick Smith’s instructions for mixing foam latex, which he graciously shared with anyone who wanted to learn. It’s a somewhat complex process, but essentially Smith recommended dental plaster to make molds because it held up the strongest, and you could buy it in 100 pound bags in dental supply stores.

Smith used R&D Foam Latex, which isn’t available anymore, but there’s still plenty of companies that quality liquid foam rubber. (A gallon of latex then cost about $23.00.) The foam had to be mixed with a blender, Smith recommended the Sunbeam brand, and he also recommended baking the latex at 210 degrees in the oven for several hours.

Both Rick Baker and Savini learned well under Smith’s tutelage, and Baker got a hell of a big break working as Smith’s assistant on another film that broke major FX ground: The Exorcist.

As Baker recalled in the book Scare Tactics, “It was like a dream come true. Every day I was learning how the master did his stuff. Dick would knock out sculptures, I’d knock out molds, and I’d be running three or four batches of foam a day so we could build up a stock. Sometimes I’d pull a piece out of a mold, and he’d almost literally slap it right onto Linda Blair’s face.”

Dick Smith working on The Exorcist makeup

When Smith did The Exorcist, he didn’t have a huge creature factory, he worked out of his basement in Larchmont, New York, sometimes borrowing his neighbor’s basement when he needed more room. When The Exorcist came out in December 1973, it became a cultural phenomenon, and one of the first times horror was taken seriously by the major studios, which in turn helped turn makeup into a major industry onto itself.

The Exorcist was such good box office, now there were so many film big and low budget that had special effects,” Smith says. “It grew so fantastic you had these shops spring up like Rick Baker’s and Stan Winston’s. Here I did The Exorcist with one assistant in my little basement, and wham, twenty years later Rick Baker has a factory-sized shop, and they joked when they opened it up that he should get a golf cart so he could get down to the other end of the hall quicker! That was truly a revolution, and The Exorcist was the birth, it was the seed.”

And indeed, with the industry finally taking the genre seriously, there were now bigger budgets for makeup men to work with. “This kind of stuff was always in B movies that had B movie budgets,” Baker says. “You had very little time and money to make a monster. You did the best you could in the time you had, but you couldn’t do a masterpiece. You were lucky to get something done. When movies like The Exorcist, which was an A movie, and a horror movie, were being made by great directors with a budget, you could just do better work. It definitely made a big difference.”

Many will tell you the golden age of FX makeup began in the early eighties with Rick Baker’s work on An American Werewolf in London, and Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing, but Savini’s work on Dawn of the Dead also helped light the fuse. It’s also remarkable to think that all the incredible gore FX Savini created for Dawn only cost a whopping $5,000. (Savini’s FX budget on the original Friday the 13th was also a major bargain, a mere $17,000.)

Rick Baker working on American Werewolf in London.

When making The Exorcist, director William Friedkin decreed that the film would have no optical effects that would be done in post-production. The more an effect could be done “in camera” on a set, the more convincing it would be to an audience, and this attitude has carried over to many of the best horror films, including Alien, American Werewolf, and The Thing.

American Werewolf also pushed the effects envelope by showing the transformations in well-lit environments. This was very difficult for Rick Baker to pull off, but it was overall a very good experience because from that point forward he created his makeup to look good under any shooting circumstances, light or dark. With The Thing, there was a definite struggle between keeping the monster hidden, and bringing it out into the light. John Carpenter wanted to show the monster more in the light, while Rob Bottin wanted to keep the monster much more hidden, because he was terrified that the latex, cables, and seams would show and spoil the illusion.

Nevertheless, the incredible FX work in Dawn of the Dead, American Werewolf, and The Thing still speak for themselves very well. As Dean Cundey, the cinematographer of The Thing, says, “It was all leading edge stuff. There was no CG morphing of creatures and all the stuff anybody can do in their garage now with a Macintosh. It was absolutely, completely unthinkable as far as technique. You couldn’t even imagine that somebody would be able to do that, so we had to find new, but conventional, ways to do it.”

And as foam latex and practical makeup effects became a growing attraction on screen, the makeup artists behind the camera became recognized in their own right. One of the first movies Miramax ever produced was the 1981’s The Burning, a Friday the 13th rip-off. The Weinsteins sent Tom Savini out on the promotional tour as the star of the film, and by this point, the makeup men were the real stars of horror. “It was kind of unique that they sent the makeup artist on the publicity tour and not the director,” Savini says. “I think with movies like Dawn of the Dead, American Werewolf, the fans, the public who were aware of what goes into making a movie, they were going to see the next exhibit from their favorite artist.”